IT ain’t always easy being vegan.
I’ve travelled to places in England where asking for the vegan option has been met with the same response as if I’d asked the waiter to chop off their hand and serve it to me in a bread bun with garnish.
So it was no surprise that I was stuffing my pockets full of nuts ahead of an upcoming trip across Romania, whose neighbours appear to some to have a love affair with meat, fish and at best, deep-fried veggies.
But surprisingly, my eight days there were some of the fullest I’ve experienced, thanks to feasting on all manner of meat and dairy free delights I had definitely not expected to find.
Far from viewing vegans with the same suspicion as some do in the Yorkshire Dales, I met with a culture that were not just aware of veganism but practised it more regularly than I would have ever believed.
It’s due, perhaps even more surprisingly, not to a new trend but a tradition that has been established over the centuries thanks to the predominance of the Eastern Orthodox Christian church.
“De post” is a magic phrase for vegans visiting Romania. Meaning “of the fast”, it signifies the food eaten by devout believers during several annual periods. Animal, dairy and egg products are all shunned for extended periods of time to show their obedience to their God.
While the two most widely observed fasts are during Lent and the 40 day Christmas fast from November 15 , the Fast of the Apostles during late May to June and Fast of the Repose of the Virgin Mary in August make up some of the best times to go for hungry, travelling vegans.
But with the practice widely understood even if not followed , and practised twice weekly by the most observant, a trip any time during the year can be a fruitful one. Just say the term or alternatively, “sunt vegan”, which is understood by some people, especially in the bigger towns.
What to eat-supermarket finds
Like everywhere, the best choice can be found in the supermarkets of bigger towns and cities.
I stumbled across soy milkshakes, several varieties of brined tofu and even a chia seed pudding when in the Mega Image chain.
But healthy vegan staples are easy to find in most supermarkets around the country, whatever the size.
Bread is the most obvious and easily available take out carb around. I was spoilt at times for what to put on it. There’s the ubiquitous hummus, which has more of an authentic Middle Eastern taste than the British version.
More exciting are the plentiful vegetable spreads, called Zacuscă.
Fresh, jarred and tinned varieties,all noticeably different can be found.
Some may be put off by the tinned versions at first, which I mistook for cans of dog food.
Fortunately, the taste couldn’t be more different and the ingredients are meat free (just don’t get confused with the meat pate tins that can be found near them!).
Spinach, tomato, salty mixed vegetable and mushroom and are common flavours, but the crème de la crème for me were the bean (fasole) and aubergine and red pepper jarred varieties, with the latter tasting like a more solid version of minestrone soup.
Covrigi-so good I only refer to them in the plural.
Stodgy, filling and delicious, these bready treats kept me going throughout the morning. They can be found at hole in the wall bakeries throughout the country and come salted, with seeds or filled with jam-it was the cherry flavour that got most of my attention.
Just make to check they haven’t been glazed in egg by asking “conțin ouă ?” (sounds like “constin ouer”).
Let’s cut to the chase-it’s easy to do, and this includes in both urban a rural locations.
Traditional Romanian restaurants tend to have a variety of options, although this may mean ordering several starters instead of mains.
If it’s carbs that you’re after, you’ll be pleased to know Romanians have love affairs with two main kinds always on the menu.
The first is polenta, usually found in semi-spherical shape balls. They’re called mămăligă and the standard way to make them is with just polenta, water, salt and oil, which gives it a creamy texture.
The country is manna for potato fans. Boiled, mashed, rostied, pan fried (cartofi romanesti taranesti) and put in stews- they’re everywhere. Just check for eggs if having rosti versions.
If you like a taste of the Mediterranean , you will be at home here, as much of the vegetable cuisine bears striking similarities to it.
The vegetables I most commonly found included grilled garlic mushrooms (ciuperci), their salty take on baked beans (fasole), griddled dill courgettes (dovlecel) and ratatouille.
I even managed to dine like royalty in rural Maramures, a magical, wooded region with rolling hills in the north west near to the Ukrainian border.
Our Romanian hosts in the wonderful village of Breb cooked me up an incredible feast of vegetable and spaghetti soup cooked in vegetable stock, which is regularly eaten during fasting periods.
This was followed by mashed potato with parsley and paprika infused oil and lemony cabbage (varză).
One course to be wary of though when home dining and in a restaurant is dessert.
The eagerness to impress means that the richest cakes or pastries are rustled up, where for some reason saying “de post” or “sunt vegan” ceases to register with the host.
Another big Romanian culinary passion is Italian restaurants, which aren’t too hard to come by in towns if not the countryside.
Saying “pizza fără brânză” can get you a pizza without cheese, while pasta in my experience was of the dry variety, which meant it was unlikely to contain egg.
Where to eat- Bucharest
Beca’s Kitchen, Mihai Eminescu 80 Cafe Verona
A recommendation from my hostel owner in the sector two district led me down a dark and empty street to find Beca’s Kitchen.
It serves locally grown, organic and sometimes raw meals, always including a vegan selection.
I had homemade hummus with wholegrain toasted flatbreads and an enormous green leaf, sprouts, nut, olive, pepper and grilled mushroom salad, that made getting up after quite an effort.
Cafe Verona, Strada Pictor Arthur Verona 13-15
Hidden below the city’s yuppy Cărturești book shop, where you can easily while away a whole afternoon.
I ate baked aubergines stuffed with a mix of their own insides, mixed vegetables, nuts, spices and tahini sauce served with rice. Oh, and it was all washed down with a hot cherry toddy, mmmmm.
Where to eat- Cluj Napoca
Samsara Foodhouse, Stephan Ludwig Roth, 5
It’s one of the city’s go to places, even for the “meat loving” one who directed me there from my hostel.
A dozen pages of innovative dishes, half of which were raw, made choosing the hardest decision of the trip.
Raw soups, vegan pizza made using a nut, flour and seed base with vegetables, cashew cheese and yeast flakes were on the menu along with stews, curries, tapas, pasta burgers, fishless sushi, several vegan cakes and superfood drinks.
The only ingredient to watch out for there was honey (miere), which the owners did not recognise as not being vegan for some reason.
Where to eat- Brasov
Restaurant Transilvania, Strada Castelului
Dine in style for a miniscule amount. The vegetable dishes were plentiful and really hit the spot. Just one n.b-I wouldn’t recommend pigging out here then attempting to walk up Mount Tampa, which the restaurant sits below, straight after.
Where to eat- Sighisoara
Casa cu Cerb, Strada Școlii 1
Serves great ratatouille. It has a separate room for non smokers, but perhaps not surprisingly for Romania, we were the only ones in it.
La Perla- Piața Hermann Oberth
Pizzas and traditional Romanian food with a great bar to boot-at a snip of the prices of food in restaurants in the old town just five minutes walk away.